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It’s been a lot tougher for Dublin to catch teams on the hop this time round, says Stephen Hiney

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Stephen Hiney's 2011 season
ended prematurely almost
exactly a year ago, but despite
his personal setback the Dublin
hurlers were flying at the time

Stephen Hiney's 2011 season ended prematurely almost exactly a year ago, but despite his personal setback the Dublin hurlers were flying at the time

Stephen Hiney's 2011 season ended prematurely almost exactly a year ago, but despite his personal setback the Dublin hurlers were flying at the time

It's exactly 12 months and three days since was lifted up on to a stretcher in Wexford Park and whisked away to what was the unfortunate next stage of his career.

Not long after half-time Hiney overstretched for a ball and felt the weight of his left knee give way beneath him. It scarcely needed a scan the following day to confirm the worst fears that Dublin had for him.

With full tears on his cruciate and lateral ligaments, a partial tear on his posterior ligament, essentially his knee was in a mess and it would be a further four months almost before he could undergo surgery to repair such extensive damage.

A year on from sustaining the injury Hiney is finally beginning to run straight lines again and preparing to undergo more taxing drills that will test his range of motions. But a return to competitive action for him is still a long way off, July at the earliest.

His recovery has been smooth, but the complexity of the damage to his knee was so great that he remains quite a distance behind his team-mates Conal Keaney and Tomas Brady, who have also been fixed up after surgery to repair cruciate ligaments.

Dublin's nine-point win over Wexford on the same afternoon that Hiney's career took a diversion catapulted Dublin to the top of hurling's Division 1. After wins over Tipperary and Offaly and a draw with Waterford they could really see the campaign opening up for them.

It was at this point of last season that Dublin started to do the projections and really see that a place in the final was within touching distance if they kept their nerve.

Fast forward 12 months and their view of hurling's premier league flight is entirely different. With two contrasting defeats to Galway and Cork already, their league campaign has taken on a different texture.

A third defeat to Kilkenny in Nowlan Park on Sunday would inevitably push them towards the relegation trapdoor.

With Tipperary looming six days later in Croke Park the noose could contract ever tighter.

Adrift

Already the talk is of Dublin and Waterford being so far adrift together from everyone else that their last round fixture in early April could double up as the actual relegation play-off without rendering it a 'dead rubber' before they go and do it all again.

That view is sure to bemuse the Dublin manager Anthony Daly, but such is the whirlwind nature of this new league format that to miss a step may put a team out of sync for longer than it takes to recover.

There may only be two rounds gone, but already Dublin's perilous position represents an indictment of the new format that takes away from the greater percentage of competitive games intended.

Injuries to key players that they took in their stride last season, now seem much more relevant. Not that the manager or the players have forwarded absentees once as an excuse mind.

But the cut and thrust nature of this six-team, six week league is really exposing any small fissures that may exist. With no low-lying fruit to pick off, Dublin have found the going tough and the injuries/illness sustained by Peter Kelly and David O'Callaghan haven't helped.

Still there was optimism from Daly in the wake of the disappointing nature of last Sunday's defeat to Cork, by comparison to the bewilderment and dismay that greeted the performance in Salthill two weeks earlier.

They got a 'performance' that, together with Danny Sutcliffe's five points from half-forward -- which were enough to end John Gardiner's day prematurely -- helped to gloss over the surrender of a four-point lead.

Hiney says Dublin appreciate that teams are viewing them much differently now that they are league champions.

"It's been a lot tougher because teams expect more from Dublin now," he admitted. "And we have to expect it from ourselves. It's something we have to get used to.

"Maybe we were able to catch teams on the hop last year, so it is that bit more difficult.

"It certainly won't be the end of the world for us if we end up in a relegation battle. We've been there before. If the performances are right -- and I thought the performance was almost right against Cork -- then I think we'll be fine."

But the greatest difference between Dublin's 2011 and 2012 leagues is the influence of Brady and Keaney.

Cast their mind back to the corresponding fixture with Kilkenny last year in driving rain under Croke Park's lights and you will recall a Herculean last 10 minutes by Brady when he drove them on relentlessly from centre-back to close a three-point gap and earn a draw.

This effectively won Dublin their passage to a league final four weeks later against the same opponents.

Keaney left an even greater mark on the campaign, his 0-14 against Tipperary and 0-10 against Waterford in the opening two games laying the perfect foundations as they hoovered up three points from a possible four.

Dublin will hope that they've got the worst out of their system and left it behind in Salthill.

However, life in the fast lane, where expectation can soar, has been a different dynamic so far.

Irish Independent